DURING THE EIGHTEEN-NINETIES Hamlin Garland, busily interviewing everyone who had ever served with Grant, in preparation for his biography of the late President, was sometimes a visitor at the “literary evenings” at the Powell house on M Street.1 He admired the Major as a student of the Indian and as the explorer of the Colorado: the nature and implications, and even the fact, of Powell’s attempted Western reforms seem never to have struck him, though the rebellious plowboy novelist and the scientific bureaucrat were one in their democratic optimism, their loyalty to the small farmer, their mistrust of monopolies, their firsthand knowledge of both Midwest and West. Powell would have made a reasonable facsimile of a Populist; his General Plan could have been dovetailed with the Populist platform of 1892 without serious conflicts. Certainly its purposes of relieving and preventing agricultural distress, extending scientific government aid to farmers, and protecting small landholders against monopolistic practices and the inequalities or inadequacies of the laws, were completely in harmony with what Garland had preached from soapboxes in Nebraska and Dakota. It is an index of how little Powell’s ideas had been able to enter the public consciousness, and how intra-congressional a matter his defeat really was, that even an aware and militant and experienced agrarian like Garland had apparently never heard of them.
Nevertheless Garland admired the Major, and meeting him some years later, broken and shuffling on the arm of a colored servant, his memory gone, a palsied and dying old man, he was shocked and saddened. He thought of Powell as a trail-breaker, one of the openers of the West, and he connected him in his mind with his own Uncle William, who had chased a dream westward all his life and was now a similarly shaken wreck in San Jose. In tribute to the two Garland wrote a poem called “The Stricken Pioneer.” Its theme is admiration for the courage and leadership of the westward seeker — “Our velvet way his steel prepared” — and it concludes :
Then bury him not here in city soil
Where car-wheels grind and factories spill
Their acrid smoke on those who toil:
Bear him far away — to some high hill
That overlooks the mighty stream
Whose thousand miles of pathway through the corn
Blazons his progress. There let him dream
And wait his resurrection morn!
It would be an injustice to Major Powell to let so lame a verse be his epitaph, or for that matter to bury him beside the Mississippi, which is apparently the “mighty stream” that Garland had in mind. But let us, with permission, imagine that the mighty stream is the Missouri, and let us imagine Major Powell buried there, perhaps seated on his horse like the Omaha chief Blackbird so that he can look out up and down the river by which white civilization first came watchfully into the West. From there he will have a view of all that the years have done or will do with ideas he bequeathed his country.
He will already have seen some curiously mixed evidences of human cussedness, contradiction, belatedness, and failure to see straight, along with some equally human persistence, growth, and ability to learn. He will see some ground that he thought successfully taken lost again, or fought over with as much viciousness as if his own battles had never been; and the repetitiveness of that struggle, the similarity of the antagonists both individual and institutional to those he knew, may impress him with the unlikelihood of the evolved human perfection he once dreamed of. He will not have seen resurrection morn yet, but he will have seen some streaks that look a little like dawn and some clouds that may perhaps indicate rain for the great day.
If Major Powell were to return and study the map of reclamation activities, present and proposed, that was published by the Bureau of Reclamation on January 1, 1951,2 he might get the impression that resurrection morn had really dawned. All the great river systems — Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, Rio Grande, Sacramento-San Joaquin, and every tributary branch and twig — have been surveyed and mapped in even greater detail than he intended. Blue river, lines are strung with the irregular blue beads of reservoirs or projected reservoirs, and the storage dams, as well as the map symbols that record them and the topographic base map on which they are superimposed, are part of the heritage that Powell left. The wide flood-plain of the Missouri from Gavin’s Point to the mouth of the Musselshell shows as an almost-continuous lake on this map which indicates both what is and what will be, and the sarcastic questions of Senator Gideon Moody about how water will be got out onto the fields from the sunken riverbed have their not-too-difficult answer.
From approximately the 95th meridian all the way to the Pacific, in fact, reclamation has already remade the map of the West. It has had an effect on the very shape and tension of the earth: reservoirs such as Lake Mead have redistributed so much weight in water and silt that seismological stations watchfully record the settling and shifting of the crust, and the isostacy which Powell and Gilbert and Dutton established as a physical force has been affected by the work of men’s hands. The whole Western future is tied to the multiple-purpose irrigation-power-flood-control-stream-management projects built to specifications first enunciated by Powell’s bureaus, and the West’s institutions and politics are implicit in the great river plans.
Some of the wildest water that Powell’s boats ran will someday soon be silted mudflats, as Separation Rapid, except during an occasional scouring flood, is a mudflat now. Intense blue water may some day fill the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon whose dark rock the boat parties hated and feared; blue water may lap the feet of the Rainbow Bridge on the flank of the mountain that Powell first named for the Howlands; blue water may extend — unless another group of conservationists is successful in preventing it — from the junction of Yampa and Green up both river canyons. On every little creek and tributary the runoff water is already or will be ponded and diverted and fed out and controlled, or run through turbines to create the power for a Western empire. Colorado River water has permitted the mushroom growth of Los Angeles and the full use of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys. A project like the Deer Creek Reservoir on the Provo insures the growth for decades of the Salt Lake Valley, where the first Anglo-American irrigation on the continent began a little over a hundred years ago.
Within the seven great reclamation regions, planning has increasingly come to be by coherent river basins and drainage basins, as Powell foresaw that it must. The responsibility for long-range planning that Powell thought belonged to the federal government, since no one else could or would assume it, has been assumed. The Bureau of Reclamation which came into being with the Newlands Act just a little before Powell’s death in 1902 is such a bureau as Powell himself might have proposed, devoted to purposes which his own Irrigation Survey began.
And the effect of long-range planning has indeed been what Powell said it would be: the reclamation of arid land in Montana has a direct relation to the reclamation of swamps in Louisiana; the control of waters on the tributaries does indeed not only check floods below and provide a regulated flow for navigation, but it has cleaned out of the channel of the Missouri and Mississippi many of those snags and sawyers and window-makers that used to peril navigation all the way to New Orleans. Without the dams already installed, the 1952 floods on the Missouri would have been very much worse than they were — would have been unmitigated disaster from the Milk River to the Gulf.
Major Powell was never primarily interested in the forests: those were to be Gifford Pinchot’s peculiar province.3 But he would approve the reservations that by the middle of the twentieth century totalled 139,000,000 acres, plus another 21,000,000 in Alaska. He would approve the National Parks which add another 12,000,- 000 acres to the reserved public lands. He would approve of the steady liberalizing of the homestead laws and the increase in the size of grazing homesteads through the early years of the century. Most of all, he would approve the Taylor Grazing Act which in 1934 practically closed the public domain to further homestead settlement.
The reservation of those same arid lands by the Irrigation Survey resolution in 1888 had been both accidental and temporary; but Powell from the very beginning4 thought much of the West ought to be permanently retired from farm settlement. The drouth of the late eighties and nineties had only corroborated what the Major already knew. But it took other drouths and other disasters, specifically the dust bowl disaster of the early 1930’s, to convince the country at large. Another panicky retreat from the edge of the arid plains, another abandonment of the plowed and wind-eroded fields, another collection of dry tanks, weatherbeaten shacks, sand-pitted corrals, was necessary to bring a solution. When solution came, it followed from the same inescapable conditions that had led Powell in 1878 to hurry his Arid Region report into the hands of Carl Schurz, and in 1889 to plead his ideas before the Montana and North Dakota Constitutional Conventions.
Powell’s accidental suspension of the historical process of homestead settlement had brought on his defeat by Congress in 1890. More than forty years later Representative Edward Taylor of Colorado, for years a rabid States’ rights enemy of Washington bureaus and federal meddling, and an advocate of cession of the public lands to the states, drafted, introduced, and fought through Congress a grazing bill that might conserve not only the natural resource of the range, but the industry built on it.5 Congressman Taylor may be taken as a striking example of the deflection of path when forces collide. Or rather, he should perhaps be taken as showing the ultimate teachability of a people, for he began pure Gilpin, he ended pure Powell.
“I fought for the conservation of the public domain under Federal leadership,” he said later, “because the citizens were unable to cope with the situation under existing trends and circumstances. The job was too big and interwoven for even the states to handle with satisfactory co-ordination. On the western slope of Colorado and in nearby states I saw waste, competition, overuse, and abuse of valuable range lands and watersheds eating into the very heart of western economy. Farms and ranches everywhere in the range country were suffering. The basic economy of entire communities was threatened. There was terrific strife and bloodshed between the cattle and sheep men over the use of the range. Valuable irrigation projects stood in danger of ultimate deterioration. Erosion, yes even human erosion, had taken root.” 6
One may query the geological or metaphysical propriety of an erosion that takes root, but one may not doubt Congressman Taylor’s sincerity or the validity of his observations. He had finally learned what an earlier and abler student of erosion had fruitlessly taught for half a lifetime. A good part of that learning process involved the brushing aside of a mythic figure: “The praises and eulogies upon the American homesteader will continue. as long as our Republic survives. The West was built, and its present proud development rests most largely upon the courage, privations, and frightfully hard work of the pioneer homesteaders ... But my dear sirs, if those hardy pioneers had had to go onto the kind of land that is contemplated within this bill, the West would still be a barren wilderness.” 7
If they had listened to Powell fifty years earlier they would not have had so hard a lesson to learn in 1934. For while Taylor’s bill was before the Senate, winds from the West carried soil from the dustbowl states clear to the east coast and the air of the capital was thick with the presence of what one Senator called “the most tragic, the most impressive lobbyist” that had ever come to Washington.
The bill which was eventually passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt created an authority, the National Grazing Service, to organize grazing districts in which established stock interests could obtain grazing leases of specified acreages at specified nominal fees. Its effect in practice was to provide the unfenced common range — carefully supervised — that Powell had proposed as a co-operative device in 1878 and as a part of the drainage-basin. local control in 1889.8 . The innovation — with which again Powell would probably have agreed — was the application to the range of the leasing principle that had already been devised for grazing areas within the national forests and for certain kinds of mineral and oil lands owned by the government. (The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.) With the Taylor Grazing Act, a historical process was complete: not only was the public domain virtually closed to settlement, but the remaining public land was assumed to be continuing Federal property, income-producing property to be managed according to principles of wise use for the benefit of the whole nation.9
On any composite map showing the modern use and management and reclamation of western lands, that is, it would appear as if almost every suggestion Powell made has been finally adopted, and every type of western land is being put to the kind of use Powell advocated. Time and loud debate have effectively classified the lands as he began to classify them in 1875. Grazing land is cropped in large unfenced ranges, irrigation farms under Reclamation Bureau dams are limited to 160 acres.10 The development of hydroelectric power from the multipurpose dams has created a source of continuing income which can be devoted to new projects and to the federal supervision and management of the public’s enterprises. States such as those on the Colorado have edged closer to Powell’s drainage-basin organization by compacts establishing the several rights to water. The principle of tying water rights to land titles is accepted through much of the West.
And yet what seems, on the maps and on the record, to be a progressive triumph for the Major’s ideas is not quite so complete as it seems. The forces that he fought all during his public life are, as of 1953, not only still there but active and aggressive. The agencies that he helped consolidate still persist in division and antagonism. The private interests that he feared might monopolize land or water in the West are still there, still trying to do just that. And the scientific solutions to western problems are still fouled up by Gilpins, by the doubletalk of Western members of Congress, by political pressures from oil or stock or power or land or water companies, by the obfuscations of pressagents and the urgings of lobbyists. In 1953 a public land policy that a few years before had looked reasonably consistent and settled was in danger of complete overturn.11
Take it back to the first real struggle in which Powell engaged — the jurisdictional dispute between civilian and military agencies over who should survey the unopened West. That row between Powell, Hayden, and to a degree King on one hand, and Lieutenant Wheeler and the Army Engineers on the other, was apparently settled with the establishment of the United States Geological Survey in 1879. But within limits the army could still allocate funds for survey work of a specifically military character, and it could, across a long span of years, succeed in establishing its right to navigational and flood-control projects on the western rivers. The policies which Henry Adams’ “first modern act of legislation” pointed toward have never fully come about.
The Missouri Valley development which by logic and public demand should already be well under way is reduced to piecemeal improvisations by that same jurisdictional dispute between the Department of the Interior and the War Department that hampered the early Western surveys. Where does irrigation leave off and navigation and flood control begin? On a river like the Missouri, which purpose is paramount? And if neither bureau trusts the other, and both have powerful political backing, and each has its fixed prerogatives, how shall they be compelled to compromise and work for the realization of a systematic river-development plan? A degree of co-operation necessarily exists, but the full authority to harness the Missouri as the Tennessee has been harnessed is blocked by interbureau jealousies and overlappings, and these jealousies are exploited by enemies of the public land policies.
Or look farther West. One of the really massive and hopeful reclamation developments is the Central Valley Project which the state of California turned over to the Bureau of Reclamation after a special referendum election in 1933. The state turned it over because it realized its inability to carry out its own admirable and coherent plan for use of the waters of the Sacramento, American, San Joaquin, and other valley rivers. Turning over the plan meant putting the individual projects under reclamation law. And reclamation law, completely in the spirit of Major Powell and of all those who for many decades tried to make the land laws fit the needs of the small farmer, carried specific restrictions. It limited the public land that could be homesteaded under a reservoir to 160 acres; it limited existing private owners under such reservoirs to the water that would irrigate 160 acres. And it gave preference to public and co-operative agencies in the distribution of power generated at the dams.
Locally the Bureau of Reclamation has not always lived up to the letter of the Newlands Act, though the administrators of the bureau have generally tried to carry out its terms. But the Engineers, whose purposes are flood control and navigation, are not bound by reclamation law, and when (as usually happens) the waters impounded by an Engineers dam can be used for irrigation, no legal compulsion except the orders of the President as Commander in Chief can make them conform to Reclamation Bureau policies. On occasion, the Corps of Engineers has ignored even the orders of the Commander in Chief. And when in 1944 the land companies of the lower San Joaquin Valley put on a campaign against reclamation restrictions, one of the net effects was that the Corps of Engineers was squeezed into the very middle of the coherent — and approved — Central Valley Project and authorized to build flood-control dams on the American, the Kings, and the Kern.12
Major Powell, who had been irritated by Lieutenant Wheeler’s duplications and interferences in 1871 and after, would be a little depressed to see one of the few examples of sound regional water planning broken wide open by those same Engineers whose principle public justification is that they train engineers for combat duty. He might even see resemblances on that point: in Wheeler’s parties, most of the scientists, geologists, topographers, and skilled men were civilians. In 1948, when the Hoover Commission took a look at the Corps, it found among its personnel 200 army engineers against 9000 civilian engineers and 41,000 other civilian employees. 13
Its critics insist that the Corps of Engineers got its finger into the bung of the pork barrel at the very beginning and nobody has ever been able to get it out, though the actual military justifications of the Corps’ work in the West practically ceased with the subjugation of the Plains and Mountain Indian tribes. The Engineers-Reclamation struggle, like the similar wrangle between Interior and Agriculture over the national forests,14 has been damaging and could be fatal to the kind of articulated planning that Powell’s proposals and the Newlands Act envisaged, looking toward the “greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.”
Were there land-hogs trying to corral grazing empires in PoweII’s time, and not above barefaced trespass on the public domain? They are still there, only now they are trying to bite out of national parks and national forests chunks of grazing land, oil land, timberland, that they covet. The conservation forces swamped such a foray in 1947;15 they will have others to fight, and they may never be able to restore the full effectiveness of the Grazing Service which Senator McCarran — a Senator Stewart come again, and from the same state — all but ruined by the profoundly Stewart-ian tactics of investigating and then cutting the budget.16
The nation will listen to a good deal more of the doubletalk about “returning” the public lands, especially the Taylor Grazing District lands and some of the rangelands within forests and parks, to the states. Those lands, of course, never did belong to the states, which relinquished all claim‘to them on being admitted to the Union and would in most cases have to pay more for their management than they could take in in taxes if they were “returned.” There will be a good deal of anathema against “absentee landlordism” in Washington, and little about the fact that the lands now in government hands have almost all been rescued from private exploitation or neglect, disastrous exploitation and disastrous neglect, and have in many cases been returned to productive use.
There will be a good deal of talk too about giving private companies a bigger share in the distributing of public power, and even of giving private companies some reserved sites for the generating of power below government dams. That talk will overlook the fact that the government dam is absolutely necessary for the utilization of the sites on the lower streams — a stream must be tamed before it can be utilized for power production. And the taming of the stream by Bureau of Reclamation or Corps of Engineers may be worth literally millions to the private company granted a franchise to build a generating plant below it.
Major Powell did not live long enough to learn fully the potential of hydroelectric power as a force in Western life or as a source of income for federal projects. But he would have recognized the techniques of those eager to take it over.17
He would recognize a lot of things, grown vastly bigger but not changed in their essentials. The issue would seem to him the same now as it was during his years in Washington: the application of federal science, know-how, money, in the general public interest, and against that the belief that the West would develop better and in more “American” terms if left, as Senator Hale suggested, “to nature and the common incidents of human life.”
There is always that question, and probably it would trouble the Major, for he was a democrat to the marrow and he knew enough about Washington to know that federal controls could have their dangers too. He might see, as many conservationists believe they see, a considerable empire-building tendency within the Bureau of Reclamation,18 an engineer’s vision of the West instead of a humanitarian‘s, a will to build dams without due regard to all the conflicting interests involved. He might fear any bureau that showed less concern with the usefulness of a project than with its effect on the political strength of the bureau. He might join the Sierra Club and other conservation groups in deploring some proposed and “feasible” dams such as that in Echo Park below the mouth of the Yampa, and he might agree that considerations such as recreation, wildlife protection, preservation for the future of untouched wilderness, might sometimes outweigh possible irrigation and power benefits. He would probably be with those who are already beginning to plead for conservation of reservoir sites themselves, for reservoirs silt up and do not last forever, and men had better look a long way ahead when they begin tampering with natural forces.
He would see all this; he was always one to take the long view, and he was a bureaucrat before the name got either familiar or unpopular. His bureaus set a pattern that was duplicated with little change in later years, and he trained a lot of the men who later ran them.19 But along with the bureaucrat dwelt a democratic idealist with a peculiarly unselfish and devoted notion of public service. And both the bureaucrat and the idealist knew that private interests, whether they dealt in cattle or sheep, oil, minerals, coal, timber, water, or land itself, could not be trusted or expected to take care of the land or conserve its resources for the use of future generations. They could be trusted or expected to protect neither the monetary nor the nonmonetary values of the land: even in his day Americans had the passenger pigeon and the buffalo, the plowed and eroded plains, the cutover forests of Michigan, to tell them where “nature and the common incidents of human life” would lead us. Later years have added the Dust Bowl and the eroded watersheds to the evidence.
He would have said, undoubtedly, in 1953 as in 1889, that there are values too critical and resources too perishable to be entrusted entirely to private exploitation. He would have said there is a difference between using a resource and mining it. He would have said the future has a claim on us. He would have said that on the evidence of several generations of exploitative freedom no one could guarantee the future its share of the American earth except the American government. If that government contained quarreling and jealous bureaus, that was too bad; if it sheltered grafters as it did so spectacularly during the time of Grant, too bad. If it was too far from the resources in question to make every decision right, too bad.
Too bad. But the alternative was worse. The alternative was creeping deserts, flooded river valleys, dusty miles of unused and unusable land, feeble or partial or monopolistic utilization of the available,land and water. The alternative was great power and great wealth to a few and for a brief time rather than competence and independence for the communities of small freeholders on which his political economy unchangeably rested.
The Jeffersonian agrarian 160-acre freeholder ideal was already beginning to wither against the arid front of the West in Powell’s own day. Powell himself, observing and admitting the conditions that would wither it, had taken a hand in the correction of some of the ideal’s more mystical aberrations. The attempt to preserve that ideal in the Newlands Act, and the labor to save it since, might look mistaken to a tired and soured observer like Henry Adams. Trusts and corporations, Adams thought, accounted for the largest part of the power that had been generated in America since 1840.20 They were, to be sure, “obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy,” and they called for some counter force, some new man. Either that or they simply corroborated one’s notion that the world rocketed with a measurable acceleration toward its own destruction, and one’s guess that the meteor-head of historical motion was already near perihelion.